On a windy morning near the end of hurricane season, the Louisiana State Museum opened “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina & Beyond” in the Presbytere on Jackson Square five years after all New Orleans zip codes were reopened to residents. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, city officials and donors attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the $7.5 million exhibit.
“We lost a lot, but we gained a tremendous amount as well,” Landrieu said. “This is a tale of redemption and resurrection.”
The exhibit chronicles the effects of the storm, levee failures and the recovery efforts of Louisiana residents.
Louisiana State Museum director Sam Rykels conceived the exhibit days after Hurricane Katrina. “From the moment we entered Kenner, we knew that this was going to shape the culture of New Orleans,” Rykels said. The expo presents a timeline of Louisiana history, pinpointing hurricanes and zeroing in on Katrina. Storm events are detailed through video footage and newscasts from the days before landfall. The “Storm Theater” features four video screens of wind and rain beating down on the streets of New Orleans, the sounds of dripping water and gusts of wind ring throughout. Lights flash and display water along a re-created levee.
The exhibit also portrays rescue efforts at hospitals and the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center and by Coast Guard helicopters.
“Hurricane Katrina was not only a shock but a wake-up call,” says Ruth Frierson, founder of Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, who was moved by the story of two men at a hospital who thought they were going to be rescued when they saw the president’s helicopter flying above, only to see it fly away.
Each museum artifact tells an individual’s story. Elton Mabry’s wall diary, taken from the B.W. Cooper housing project shortly before demolition, outlines the pain he felt and the assistance he received, mentioning names of people who came to his aid. There’s a pair of jeans from Claudio Hemb, who inscribed his name, wife’s name, Social Security number and blood type on the garment. Flanking the entrance to the Presbyetere is Ken Ballau’s boat, which he and the National Guard used to rescue 400 people.
“At first I had a hard time looking at it,” Ballau says. “The whole experience was overwhelmingly sad.” But he says the exhibit is cathartic for him, and helps him share his story. Many accounts from the storm are archived in the room titled “Is this America?”
Parts of the exhibit outline scientific data about the storm and how future tragedies can be avoided. “It is inevitable that there will be another hurricane disaster,” said Bill Read, director of the National Hurricane Center. “This exhibit helps to prepare and be proactive, instead of reacting to panic.” Hands on activities and computer simulations focus on the engineering behind levees, hurricane predictions and wetland preservation.
The last section is titled “Recovery” and focuses on rebuilding. Rykels plans to adapt this gallery to the status of recovery as it continues. He hopes the exhibit will be cathartic for locals and informative for the 80 percent of the state museum visitors who are from outside of Louisiana.
“It will show them why we live here, why we can live here, and why we should live here,” says Rykels.
“Living with Hurricanes: Katrina & beyond” is is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.